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Doctor Who: Blood of the Daleks (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Blood of the Daleks originally broadcast in 2006-2007.

Blood of the Daleks is an interesting piece of Doctor Who lore. It isn’t the first of Paul McGann’s audio adventures in the role of the Doctor. While McGann wasn’t the first of the performers to work with Big Finish, he recorded his first performance in 2001, half a decade before he recorded Blood of the Daleks. He’d gone through years of audio adventures and even a couple of companions before Blood of the Daleks.

Paul McGann been working on the character since before Russell T. Davies had had a chance to structure and plan the revival, and he has been a fixture of the line throughout the tenures of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith in the role. However, Blood of the Daleks marks something of a big moment for the character, a definite step forward for his version of the character, and a bold endorsement of his interpretation by the BBC.

Blood of the Daleks didn’t debut on audio CDs in collectible shops. It broadcast on BBC7, less than a week following the broadcast of The Runaway Bride.


One of the most fascinating aspects of the revived series was the decision to allow Big Finish to keep recording and releasing material based on the classic Doctor Who show. This was quite an affectionate and considerate move on the part of Davies and the BBC, who had both worked quite quickly and efficiently to solidify what was and wasn’t Doctor Who. (That isn’t a bad thing, mind you; brand control is an important part of managing something like this.)

The decision to allow Big Finish to keep producing content based on the show is laudable. In practical terms, it keeps the performers employed and involved and active. In purely sentimental terms, it has allowed actors like Colin Baker and Paul McGann to completely reinvent their troubled interpretations of the character, while also giving Peter Davison meatier material than he ever got on the show. However, the relationship between Big Finish and the BBC was always a bit more than passively permittance.

While access to content and characters from the new series was limited, there was a very definite – if unofficial – link established and maintained. Nicholas Briggs would voice monsters (sometimes the same monsters) in both the television relaunch and the Big Finish material; a few of the writers would overlap; Davies would adapt two adventures quite directly from Big Finish audios. (Dalek was based on Jubilee, while The Rise of the Cybermen drew from Spare Parts.)

Davies’ successor, Steven Moffat, would take this to the next logical step during the show’s fiftieth anniversary, using Night of the Doctor to confer legitimacy on the Eighth Doctor’s audio adventures by name-checking his companions. While an audio play broadcast on the BBC’s second-most popular digital radio station hardly matches that level of exposure, the broadcast of Blood of the Daleks is still an important part of the rehabilitation of McGann’s Eighth Doctor.

It is worth noting that there was never anything wrong with McGann’s performance. He just had the misfortune to end up in a terrible television movie, which has become something of a pop culture joke. Even Blood of the Daleks can barely restrain itself. His companion describes his outfit as “something you’d see in a boring film.” “This is your hair, right?” Lucie Miller incredulously asks at one point during the play, making a pretty direct jab at the wig McGann wore during the filming of The TV Movie.

(McGann himself has joked that he’d happily reprise the role on television, provided he didn’t have to wear a wig. Appropriately enough, the character’s costume and hair were both done away with as part of the show’s fiftieth anniversary, both in a “new look” for the audio box set Dark Eyes and in the Moffat-written mini-episode Night of the Doctor. So it looks like Blood of the Daleks at least has its finger on the pulse.)

Still, Blood of the Daleks is a play that is being broadcast on an official BBC station to fill the gap between the broadcast of television episodes The Runaway Bride and Smith & Jones. This is practically a ringing endorsement of the work that McGann has done. It’s a tacit acknowledgement of McGann’s work, and seems positioned in such a way as to capitalise on the popularity of the show, airing directly following the Christmas special guest-starring Catherine Tate.

(Indeed, Blood of the Daleks wears its influences quite on its sleeve. While Lucie Miller winds up a markedly different character from Donna, she’s not too far astray from the premise of “Catherine Tate lands on the TARDIS”, as teased at the end of Doomsday. Even the basic hook – a strange working-class woman materialises inside the Doctor’s TARDIS – seems designed to invite comparisons to the introduction of Donna, despite the fact the story was written long before Doomsday aired.)

More than that, there’s a tease that these audio plays might just becomes something approaching canon. The Radio Times teased the broadcast of the first part of the story as “the first of eight new dramas, taking Paul McGann’s one-time TV-movie Doctor up to the point where he regenerates into Christopher Eccleston.” This would be a massive coup for Big Finish, offering a glimpse at the back story of Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who revival, and firmly tying together the old and new mythologies while broadcast on a BBC radio station.

This was almost immediately rejected by those involved with the project, who denied the assertion that the plays would follow the Doctor “up to the point” of his regeneration. Still, even the possibility of having that moment played out was enough to mark Blood of the Daleks as something special. After all, it was only in the wake of these broadcasts that the new series would officially confirm that Paul McGann was part of the show’s mythology, with a sketch appearing in the Journal of Impossible Things in Human Nature in 2006.

Even outside of that never-going-to-happen regeneration, the line never quite lived up to its potential to really break into the mainstream. Indeed, by the time the series of Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith audio adventures concluded up in 2011, the series had gone back to being released primarily as specialty Big Finish CDs, with highlights from the final two seasons broadcast on BBC7. (All but the final two-parter of the second season were broadcast.)

The most recent continuation of the Eighth Doctor’s character arc, Dark Eyes, was packaged as a four-CD season-long box set of adventures primarily available via the Big Finish website. It seems that we’ve gone back to the old model. It’s worth noting that there’s nothing wrong with that model – as I noted before, it keeps the actors employed and serves as fertile ground for generating Doctor Who concepts and ideas.

Still, Blood of the Daleks was a massive step forwards for the legitimacy of Paul McGann’s interpretation of the character, only exceeded by including him in the official anniversary celebrations by way of Night of the Doctor. It’s very much worth celebrating for that reason alone. It’s one of the biggest moments of validation possible for the Eighth Doctor, with the actor reprising the role on the BBC during another actor’s official tenure.

It’s interesting to contemplate the purpose of the Big Finish audio dramas in 2006, beyond giving old performers steady work. During the wilderness years, the audio dramas offered a possible vision of the future of the franchise – a possible way to keep a cancelled television show alive for long-term fans and true believers. It could even offer an example of what the show could become, and what the future might have in store for Doctor Who.

Storm Warning, McGann’s first audio, might be a bit rough around the edges, but it understands the rules of modern drama – in particular importance of a character hook for a new companion. It’s no longer enough for the companion to be young and female, there needs to be a human angle to the relationship between the Doctor and the companion. While a lot of Big Finish’s output was traditional, there was room for experimentation and for playing with the tropes and conventions of the show.

It’s no coincidence that so many writers from various media in the wilderness years were recruited to work on the new show. (Even people who worked behind the scenes on Big Finish were hired for technical positions.) These were people who kept the show alive, and who refused to allow Doctor Who to stagnate. It’s something that really needs to be emphasised, and a debt owed to the people working on the dramas.

At the same time, this logic didn’t really hold true in 2006. The show had returned. The proper modernised form of Doctor Who was airing on BBC One on Saturday nights, with a considerable amount of talent drawn from the wilderness years. Big Finish could really no longer lay claim to the present of Doctor Who, or mapping out the franchise’s future. Which means that there was only really one course open to them.

Blood of the Daleks is very clearly an attempt to form a bridge, connecting the old series to the new series. The use of Paul McGann for these radio plays is an inspired touch, making it clear that these stories push forward from the last televised relic of the pre-relaunch era. At the same time, the design of Blood of the Daleks is consciously intended to evoke the structure and features of the relaunched television.

These radio adventures are consciously designed to evoke the 2005 series. Lucie Miller herself is something of Rose-Tyler-by-way-of-Donna-Noble; although Donna Noble had yet to be fully developed when Blood of the Daleks was recorded. Catherine Tate’s Donna had appeared for about 30 seconds by the time that Blood of the Daleks was recorded in August 2006, and the play was obviously conceived and written even before that cameo.

Still, Lucie Miller seems consciously designed as a new series companion. She’s young, female, from contemporary Britain, working class. Even the casting of Sheridan Smith from Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps seems like an attempt to evoke Davies’ willingness to cast recognisable pop culture figures, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. Stephen Gately, former member of Boyzone and one of the top ten of Ireland’s Greatest, pops up in Horror of Glam Rock.

The structure of the episodes, although undoubtedly designed to work on BBC7, is more clearly patterned on the approach taken by the new series. Episodes run for an hour rather than forty-five minutes, but it opens with a familiar “teaser.” Indeed, the “establish mood and have somebody brutally killed by a monster” default teasers for modern Doctor Who is used to open Horror of Glam Rock.

Even the structure of the season seems to draw from the way that Davies’ Doctor Who has adapted itself to modern television. This first season is structured along a series of “done-in-one” hour-long adventures with recurring themes and motifs, and a mystery providing a central through-line. The most significant stories of the season (the opening and closing adventures) expanded to two individual episodes. There’s a sense of “event” storytelling about Blood of the Daleks and Human Resources, featuring the two most iconic Doctor Who aliens – the Daleks and the Cybermen.

In a way, you could argue that this first radio season is actually ahead of the curve. It’s driven by a central mystery involving the Doctor’s companion, a staple of Steven Moffat’s approach to the show rather than a fixture of the Davies era. While the mystery regarding Lucie is primarily dealt with in the final episodes of the season, it does seem like a more serialised structure than the approach favoured by Davies.

Still, other aspects of Blood of the Daleks draw quite heavily from the new series. While obviously distinct for legal and copyright reasons, the story’s score can’t help but evoke some of Murray Gold’s music cues for the Daleks. “We will exterminate your associate!” the Daleks threaten at one point, which seems like a pretty direct shout-out to their ultimatum in The Parting of the Ways. (“We have your associate!”)

There’s the conscious injection of sexual tension into the relationship between the Doctor and Lucie, which is hardly a radical notion for Big Finish. The line pioneered the “companion is attracted to the Doctor” story beat with the first companion of the Eighth Doctor, realising that storytelling has changed since the classic show was on the air. Still, the constant banter between the Doctor and Lucie can’t help but evoke the approach of the new series, applying romantic tropes and conventions to the relationship. (“My place?” the Doctor repeats. “This is not a date!”) The suicide attack on the colony using the Dalek ship can’t help but evoke 9/11 iconography.

There’s a clear sense that Big Finish are trying to bridge the new series and the old series. The Eighth Doctor pointedly exists in the old universe. Dalek fleets roam the cosmos, the Time Lords are meddling in his affairs. And yet the universe is changing around him. The format of his stories have begun to shift. His companion is more in line with the new series. (“You don’t belong,” he tells her.) It’s no surprised that McGann’s new costume for Dark Eyes consciously evokes Christopher Eccleston’s outfit, tied together by a leather jacket.

Of course, writer Steve Lyons addresses this shift in the context of the story. The Daleks are a suitable adversary for the Doctor’s debut on BBC7, and Lyons is well aware of what they represent. The Doctor is constantly changing and evolving and regenerating. He is life. The Daleks are death. As a mad scientist on a distant world attempts to engineer his own Daleks, the Doctor warns them. “These aren’t the future. They’re the end.”

As a story set in that yawning gap between Survival and Rose, and about to press forward to link the old continuity to the show’s more modern iteration, the appearance of the Daleks is quite significant. The Daleks arrive on Red Rocket West to eliminate and exterminate the next generation of Daleks, their successors. Explaining why the Daleks react with fear to the concept of a new generation, Asha explains, “They see a future where you will replace them.”

The Daleks are focused on purity and integrity. They are terrified of change. In a way, they stand for the most extreme of tradition Doctor Who fans who refuse to accept the new show, and won’t accept that it is a new generation of the same concept. Interestingly, the Doctor spends most of Blood of the Daleks trying desperately to prevent the past from repeating itself.

He describes the conflicts with the Daleks as a “recurring nightmare”, and draws attention to the fact that Asha is basically playing out her own version of Genesis of the Daleks in some small corner of the universe. The Doctor works frantically to prevent the emergence of two races of Daleks, from spawning another Dalek Civil War. “I cannot allow there to be two!” he vows, as if worried at the prospect that the mythology of the Daleks could wind up convoluting itself once again, becoming just as inaccessible as it was during the Saward era.

Lyons’ script occasionally feels just a little too familiar and a little too derivative. We’ve seen all of this before. Of course, that’s entirely the point, but it Blood of the Daleks might have been stronger if condensed down to a much tighter one-part adventure. After all, Genesis of the Daleks is really all that anybody needs to know about the origins of the species, so it’s enough to reduce Asha’s experiments to cliff-notes rather than the full version of events.

The play collapses chaotically into itself towards the end, with another large-scale Dalek confrontation and surprisingly amoral behaviour from the Eighth Doctor. For a pacifist, he seems quite willing to use the local inhabitants as cannon fodder, and the use of a sonic screwdriver to trigger a bomb (burying Asha’s lab in another echo of Genesis of the Daleks) feels like a fairly overt breach of the “that’s not a weapon” philosophy of the screwdriver. (Not that the show has ever been too slavishly devoted to the idea.)

It never feels like Red Rock West ever comes alive, and its inhabitants never seem especially real or grounded. It’s just another arena for the ever-lasting conflict between the Doctor and the Daleks. Even Martez/Asha becomes a somewhat generic mad scientist who only functions to provide the Doctor with a suitably evil foil to bounce off, before she eventually sees the error of her ways and gets exterminated for her trouble.

Still, it’s not a bad debut for a season of Paul McGann audios, and offers a nice demonstration of just how comfortable McGann has become in the role. Blood of the Daleks is a story that’s arguably more significant for what it represents rather than what it is.

2 Responses

  1. I know it’s old. But brilliant dissertation on BotD. Very wel worded, well researched and you hit on everything except…. If you listen carefully the people who answered the distress call are from Telo* You can’t hear the end but it’s intentionally similar to Telos. Poor planet is doomed.

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